UNLV coach Mike Sanford was talking this week about the ways Phillip Payne could get better as a wide receiver, then Sanford started feeling guilty.
"I hate to talk about the things he needs to improve on because there are a lot of positives," said Sanford, whose team hosts Air Force in a 7 p.m. game Saturday at Sam Boyd Stadium. "I’m glad we have him."
So is everyone else associated with UNLV football.
While senior Casey Flair is on the verge of becoming the Rebels’ all-time leading receiver and junior Ryan Wolfe is the team’s top target, Payne has become an offensive force as a freshman.
The Western High School product has played like a senior when it has counted most, turning the fade pass in the end zone into an almost automatic six points.
Payne beat Iowa State in overtime on that play, just a week after making a spectacular catch to send UNLV’s victory at then-No. 15 Arizona State into overtime. The twisting, one-handed grab is better remembered — and celebrated among Rebels fans — than the blocked field goal that secured the upset victory.
A framed picture of the catch hangs in Payne’s dorm room.
"I was amazed myself," Payne said of the grab. "I thought I was the luckiest person in the world."
To put his impact in perspective, Payne’s six touchdown receptions are two more than any other freshman in the nation. He also is just two behind UNLV’s freshman record set by Lenny Ware in 1996.
Payne’s potential is enormous, especially if he adds bulk to his 6-foot-3-inch, 185-pound frame. He also must continue to learn the offense, maintain his work ethic, remain grounded and keep listening to coaches and teammates.
His progress in each area is evident, and Payne still seems surprised by media attention. He accepts coaching and won over older teammates by listening to their advice and asking questions.
"When we tell him, he takes those and puts them right into play the very next time," Flair said. "So it makes it easy to help a guy like that."
It didn’t take long for wide receivers coach Kris Cinkovich to see Payne’s promise. Accustomed to recruiting tapes that highlight big plays — and Payne’s certainly included those — Cinkovich was struck by the less-noticeable ways the receiver stood out at Western.
"I still remember him being real physical trying to block guys and playing hard and competing and digging the ball out when he knew he was going to get hit," Cinkovich said. "Those are things you don’t see a lot on highlight tapes."
Payne’s UNLV teammates started to become believers over the summer when Payne made catch after catch in voluntary workouts. They told coaches, who were prohibited by NCAA rules from watching those practices, about the skinny hotshot.
Coaches saw for themselves at the Rebels’ training camp in Ely, where Payne made catching fade passes for touchdowns look as routine as conditioning drills.
Of course, Payne still had to show he could do it in games, and he didn’t waste any time. He caught a 7-yard fade pass in the second quarter in the season opener to give the Rebels the lead for good over Utah State.
"I’ve got a lot of confidence in the throw," quarterback Omar Clayton said.
As Payne continued to burn defenders on that pattern, opponents adjusted with an extra defender. But that left others open, such as Wolfe on a touchdown catch against UNR.
Even the running game benefits when an extra defender tries to cover Payne. That strategy has helped the Rebels remain perfect in the red zone (18-for-18 with 15 touchdowns). They are one of three teams nationally with an unblemished record inside the 20-yard line.
With or without the ball, Payne makes a difference.
"I’m optimistic that he’ll stay humble and stay hungry," Cinkovich said. "If he can do those two things, he can obviously be a real special player."
• NOTE — UNLV’s Dack Ishii was added to the watch list for the Ray Guy Award, which goes to the nation’s top punter. Ishii averages 43.6 yards per punt and has placed 33.3 percent inside the 20.
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at email@example.com or 702-387-2914.FRESHMAN RECEIVING TDS Phillip Payne, UNLV, 6 Ryan Broyles,Oklahoma, 4 Malcolm Beyah, Middle Tennessee, 4 Tyron Carrier, Houston, 4 T.Y. Hilton, Florida International, 4 Michael Floyd, Notre Dame, 4